Category Archives: Ira Levin

Dress, Voice, Style, Image*

Image ObsessionIn Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch travels from New York City, where she’s been living, to her family’s home in Maycomb, Alabama. When she arrives, her Aunt Alexandra asks her,

‘‘Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?’
Later in the conversation, Alexandra goes on,

‘’I do wish this time you’d try to dress better while you’re home. Folks in town get the wrong impression of you. They think you are – ah – slumming.’’

The debate over how Jean Louise ‘should’ dress and look highlights a very important social reality. There is often a great deal of pressure on people to dress in certain ways, look certain ways, and so on. That’s possibly even more the case with today’s social media. But it’s been going on for a very, very long time. Image isn’t just important for those on television or those who are considered ‘celebrities.’ There’s pressure even on ‘regular people’ too (e.g. ‘I can’t wear that! People might see me.’ ‘Wait, let me put my makeup on first. I can’t go out looking like this!’).

On the one hand, it makes sense to do certain ‘image’ things, such as wearing clean clothing, combing one’s hair, and so on. Like anything else, though, there’s definitely such a thing as too much pressure. There are all sorts of real-life stories of the negative consequences of that pressure, and we see it in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning by train and ferry from France to London. He meets a fellow passenger, a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. At one point, they’re about to reach the Calais station, and she hastily touches up her powder and lip salve. When he comments that she doesn’t need all of that, she says,

‘‘My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump just up from the country?’’

It’s an interesting look at the pressure to look a certain way. When the train pulls into the station, Hastings takes his leave of Cinderella, assuming he probably won’t see her again. What he doesn’t know is that he’ll get caught up in a strange case of murder – and that Cinderella will make another appearance…

There’s a darker, more biting look at this phenomenon in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut to take advantage of lower taxes and good schools. When the flurry of moving is over, they settle in and all goes well enough at first. Stepford seems to be the perfect small town. Things go even better when Joanna makes a new friend Bobbie Markowe. Unlike a lot of the other women in town, Bobbie is down-to-earth, dresses casually, and isn’t preoccupied with the appearance of her home. It’s not long before both women begin to notice some odd things going on in town. For one thing, most of the other women in town seem obsessed with looking perfect (even in the grocery store) and keeping their homes immaculate. At first Bobbie and Joanna joke about it, but it’s not long before Bobbie becomes suspicious that something’s going on. And when Bobbie starts to behave the same way, Joanna becomes convinced that there’s something sinister beneath Stepford’s surface. Walter isn’t much help in the matter. When Joanna tells him about her concerns, he says,

‘’If Bobbie’s taking an interest in her appearance, it’s about time. It wouldn’t hurt you to look in a mirror once in a while.’…
‘Do you want me to change,’ she asked him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while.’’

Among other things, this novel offers an interesting social commentary.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little tells the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. When her brother Bill falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora tries to get along with her for Bill’s sake. But right from the beginning, it’s difficult. At first, she thinks it’s just because she and Bill are close, and she’s not happy admitting to herself she doesn’t want to ‘share’ him with someone else. Besides, Alice is beautiful, with exactly the right clothes, while Lora isn’t exactly a fashion plate. But little by little, she begins to have real suspicions about Alice. Nonetheless, when Bill and Alice marry, Lora continues to try to get along with her new sister-in-law. Alice quickly becomes a social leader in their circle. She’s the one with the perfect hair, makeup, parties and hors d’oeuvres. But the more Lora finds out about Alice, the more she sees that Alice has a dark side. At the same time as she’s repelled by that, Lora is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. When it looks as though Alice might be implicated, Lora has to decide what she’ll do.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman owns a Melbourne bakery of which she’s justly proud. She depends on her employees, and she cares about them. For instance, her two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge are both determined to have television careers. To that end, they eat as little as they can, to make sure they stay thin. And they’re very concerned about what they wear and how they look. In Devil’s Food, their obsession goes a little too far, when they’re both sickened by diet tea that turns out to have been poisoned. At one point, Chapman and her friend Meroe are trying to help the two girls after they’ve been poisoned. Chapman’s trying to find anything among their possessions that might have been responsible. As she’s looking through their things, she finds that,

‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company…Foundations enough to build a small Greek temple…and eye pencils to supply Ancient Egypt for a dynasty.’

In the end, Chapman and Meroe do discover both the source of the poison and the person responsible for it. And in the process, we learn just how much effort Kylie and Goss go to in order to look ‘just right.’

In case you think this pressure applies just to women, that’s actually not true. Men, too, are often pressured. We see that, for instance, in Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has more or less let himself go since his divorce. His sister insists that he get his life back together and, mostly because of her, he signs up for auditions at Auckland’s Regent’s Theatre for the upcoming show Ladies’ Night. He gets a job with the stage crew and preparations begin. The dancers in the show get ready for their performances with workouts and training at a local gym called Intensity. When Dennis solves a printer problem for the gym’s owner Cathy, she invites him to join the dancers’ workouts as a way to get into shape. He reluctantly agrees, and starts the regimen. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears, and is later found dead. It turns out, too, that there is more than one possible motive, as Vincenzo was involved in some lucrative ‘side businesses,’ with some dubious people. What’s more, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man who wasn’t particularly fussy about the marital status of his partners. As the story unfolds, we learn about the dangerous side of trying for ‘the perfect body,’ and the balance needed to stay in shape in a healthy, but not obsessive, way.

There is an undeniable pressure to look and dress a certain way, and it’s not helped by media and other popular images. In real life, it can have disastrous consequences. It can in crime fiction as well.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, Harper Lee, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Megan Abbott

I’ll Be Watching You*

FollowingIt’s very scary to feel that you’re being followed. In a way, it’s even scarier if the person you think is following you hasn’t done anything obviously threatening. In that case, at least you could let the authorities know. That sense that someone might be after you, if I may be that melodramatic, sometimes seems to heighten your senses. It also can add a very effective layer of suspense to a story.

I’m not talking here of what most of us think of as stalking. Telephone calls, verbal threats, etc. can at least be reported to the police. But simply following? That’s harder to pin down as dangerous, and that’s what makes it all the more tense.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Crooked Man, for instance, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the murder of Colonel James Barclay. The evidence suggests strongly that the victim’s wife Nancy is responsible. The couple had a violent quarrel shortly before he was murdered, and no-one else really seems to have a motive. But the Barclays were a very happy couple up until that quarrel, and Holmes becomes convinced that the police have got the wrong suspect. Then he gets a clue from a friend of Nancy’s. The two had gone out the evening of the murder and, for a time, were being followed by a man who limped and had a crooked back. He did nothing threatening, but it was still eerie. He turned out to be someone from Nancy’s past, and their chance meeting changed everything.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is taking a honeymoon cruise of the Nile with her new husband Simon. The trip is only really marred by one thing: Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort seems to be following them. Wherever they go, there she is. Linnet is deeply upset by this, in part because she has a sense of guilt about it. Simon was Jackie’s fiancé before he met Linnet, and Jackie blames her former friend for the breakup with Simon. The whole thing is so unnerving for Linnet that when she finds out Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, she asks him to stop Jackie. Poirot makes the point that authorities often do in cases like this: there’ve been no clear threats, and Jackie is free to go where she wishes, especially in public places. So there’s nothing he can do. This upsets Linnet even more. Poirot finally agrees to talk to Jackie, but he won’t work in Linnet’s pay. When he follows through on this, Jackie refuses to listen. So when Linnet is shot, Jackie becomes a prime suspect, until it’s shown she couldn’t have committed the crime. Now Poirot has to look elsewhere for the murderer. We may not think of Linnet as a particularly sympathetic character, but it’s easy to understand how much being followed has shaken her.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart, who move with their two children to the quiet community of Stepford, Connecticut. All seems well at first, and everyone settles in. Then, Joanna makes friends with Bobbie Markowe. Little by little, Bobbie begins to suspect that something strange and scary is going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t believe her. But it’s not very long before she herself notices some unsettling things. In one scene, for instance, Walter invites some friends over for drinks. One of those friends, Dale Coba, seems to be following Joanna, and it unnerves her. Still, he doesn’t directly threaten her, so there’s nothing much she can do. The same sort of thing happens one night when she’s trying to take some night ‘photos (she is a photographer by background). Again, there’s nothing specific she can identify, so she can’t do anything about what’s happening. In fact, she begins to wonder if she’s the one who’s crazy. It turns out though, that she’s very sane indeed.

In Gail Bowen’s A Colder Kind of Death, political scientist/academic Joanne Kilbourn has to relive the murder of her husband Ian. He was killed one night when he stopped to help Kevin Tarpley and Maureen Gault, a young couple whose car had broken down. Tarpley killed Ian when he refused to give the young people his car. Tarpley has been in prison since he committed the crime. One day, he’s out exercising in the prison yard when he is shot. After his funeral, Maureen shows up unexpectedly at the Kilbourn home. This is unnerving of course, but Maureen doesn’t do anything that’s clearly a threat. Then she shows up at Joanne Kilbourn’s office. Again, she is unpleasant, but not outright threatening. So there’s not much that can be done. Then, she too is murdered. At first, Joanne is the logical suspect. In part to clear her name, she works to find out who killed both young people, and in the end, she finds out the truth about her husband’s murder.

We get a different perspective on following someone around in Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger. Fabien Delorme has just learned that his wife Sylvie was killed in a car crash. As if that’s not enough, he also learns that she was not alone. She had taken a lover, Martial Arnoult, who was also killed. Delorme is almost more upset that Sylvie was unfaithful than he is at her death, since their marriage hadn’t been strong for quite some time. Still, he feels a sense of loss. He also becomes curious about Arnoult’s widow Martine. He decides to follow her and find out more about her. He does nothing threatening; at first he simply spends a lot of time in a café near her home. Then he follows her to a ticket office where she and her friend Madeleine pick up tickets for a holiday in Majorca. Delorme gets tickets himself and follows the two there. Martine isn’t upset about Delorme; in fact, she begins a relationship with him. And that’s when things begin to spin out of control for both of them…

The real action in Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder begins when Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel, return to their home on the Swedish island of Fårö. They’ve been away for a couple of months, and have sub-let their home to earn some extra money. When they arrive, they see that the tenants have made a huge mess. They’re especially unnerved to find that some of their family photographs have been deliberately disfigured. Although it certainly seems to be a case of horrible tenants, the couple call the police as a precaution. Fredrik Bronan and his team take the case. They promise to look into matters, mostly to get the damage repaired. Still, the ruined ‘photos bother Malin in particular. She tries to put the matter out of her mind, until one day, she drops her children off at their schools, only to see a strange woman watching her. It’s not someone she knows; it’s not even one of the other parents she’s seen before. Still, she’s concerned she might be imagining things, and doesn’t do much about it. Besides, what can she do? The woman has the right to be on the street. Not long afterwards, Malin is in local supermarket when she gets the sense that she’s being followed. No-one’s there, but she thinks she’s heard someone. The employees can’t do much to help, and by the time Malin gets outside, whoever it was (if it was anyone) is gone. Then, other, more menacing, things happen. Now it’s clear that someone is after the Andersson/Kjellander family. Bronan and his team have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, if they can, before real harm comes to anyone. To do that, they have to uncover some deeply-hidden, very dark secrets.

It really is eerie to think that someone is following you. Even if it’s not true, it can prickle the skin. And if it is, especially if that person isn’t doing anything specifically threatening, it can be completely unnerving. Little wonder it can also be so effective in crime novels.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Police’s Every Breath You Take.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Håkan Östlundh, Ira Levin, Pascal Garnier

I Got the Feeling That Something Ain’t Right*

Growing SuspicionsHave you ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Even if you haven’t, you probably know the premise: L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies is laid up with a broken leg; to pass the time, he begins to observe what’s going on in the other apartments that face the same courtyard his does. It’s not long before he begins to suspect that one of those other people, a man named Lars Thorvald, may be a murderer. Part of the tension in the film comes from the the fact that we don’t see the suspected murder, and there’s no real evidence that anyone’s been killed. And yet, Jeff is convinced that something is very wrong. Everything Thorvald does has a logical explanation; yet it also has a possibly sinister one as well. And of course, the more convinced Jeff is that Thorvald is a murderer, the more possible danger there is for him and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont.

It’s arguably a bit harder to depict that kind of growing suspicion with words, but it can make for a suspenseful plot point in a crime novel. Is someone a character observes a criminal or not? We see that in all sorts of crime fiction; space only permits me a tiny sampling.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), French moneylender Marie Morisot, who goes by the name of Madame Giselle, is poisoned while en route from Paris to London. The only possible suspects are her fellow passengers, so Chief Inspector Japp concentrates his attention there. Hercule Poirot was on the same flight, so he works with Japp to find the killer. One evening, two of the other passengers, Jane Grey and Norman Gale, are having dinner and discussing the case. They notice detective novelist Mr. Clancy eating at the same restaurant and decide to sleuth him. As they do, they come to believe that he’s acting most suspiciously:

‘His direction, too, was erratic. Once, he actually took so many right-angle turns that he traversed the same streets twice over.
Jane felt her spirits rise.
‘You see?’ she said excitedly. ‘He’s afraid of being followed. He’s trying to put us off the scent.”

Mr. Clancy does other things too that make the two suspect him.

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their move to the quiet town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the move seems like an excellent decision. The town is lovely, they’ve been welcomed, and their children Pete and Kim have settled into school and begun to make friends. Then Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe starts to suspect that something dangerous is going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna thinks Bobbie is overreacting. But then other things happen that convince Joanna that Stepford is not the idyllic place it seems to be. Everything she observes seems to have a very plausible explanation; in fact, she herself wonders whether she may be crazy. But she learns that what she’s noticed also has a very sinister explanation as well.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King learns that her brother Bill has met and fallen in love with Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. Lora wants to be happy for her brother since they’ve always been close. But she’s not at all impressed with Alice. On the surface, Alice seems terrific; she’s beautiful, pleasant and quite devoted to Bill. But Lora has her doubts. Still, she puts the best face on it when Bill and Alice get married. Then, little things begin to surface that make Lora doubt Alice even more. Everything she learns has a plausible explanation, and Alice provides them. But Lora’s suspicions continue to grow. Then there’s a murder, and Alice may be mixed up in it. Lora is afraid for her brother, so she decides to find out whether that’s true. The more she learns about Alice’s world, the more repelled Lora is by it; at the same time though, she is drawn to it. And that sense that something is probably – but not definitely – very wrong adds a layer of tension to the story.

Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant introduces us to Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ for his private investigations company is ‘vetting’ potential brides and bridegrooms. Before final wedding arrangements are made between families, one or the other often hires an agency such as Puri’s to make sure that the prospective new family member is respectable and meets the family’s standards. One such case is that of Brigadier General Kapoor, who hires Puri to look into the background of Mahinder Gupta, who is slated to marry Kapoor’s granddaughter Tisca. On the surface, there seems no problem with Gupta, and there’s no one thing in particular that upsets Kapoor. But he has the feeling that something isn’t right about the bridegroom-to-be, and he’s become worried. As Puri and his team investigate, they find out something that Kapoor didn’t know.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to former school principal Thea Farmer. She’s planned and had built a ‘dream house’ in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. But poor financial decisions have meant that she has to change her plans drastically. Instead of the perfect home, she’s had to settle for the smaller house next door – ‘the hovel,’ as she refers to it. To make matters worse, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have purchsed the home that Thea still sees as her own. She dislikes them both intensely, and even more so when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with them. Still, Thea develops a kind of friendship with Kim. So when she slowly begins to be convinced that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate environment for the girl, Thea gets concerned. She soon learns that the police aren’t going to do anything about it because they don’t have actual evidence that there’s any problem. Everything Thea witnesses has a plausible explanation. But she is certain that Kim is at risk. So she makes her own plans to deal with the situation.

Everything may appear perfectly innocent on the surface, but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes little suspicions can grow, whether or not they’re well-founded. That possibility can make for a solid layer of suspense in stories (and in films!). Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

They Show You Photographs of How Your Life Should Be*

IllusionsWe all know of course that life isn’t perfect. But the illusion that it could be is very appealing. That illusion of a perfect setting/life/society/etc. can be very powerful. It’s what sells all sorts of products from ‘the perfect getaway holiday’ to ‘the perfect hairstyle’ to just about anything else. Just look at the ‘photo, for instance. It’s a picture of the famous Las Vegas Strip, where nearly everything is a carefully-crafted illusion of perfection. That ideal of perfection is also arguably part of what drives people to keep up appearances (e.g. ‘Yes, I have the perfect family.’)

But as I say, life doesn’t work that way. Before you know it, that perfect pair of shoes gets a scratch in it, or new people move onto the perfect street and start throwing loud parties and leaving trash everywhere. Those reminders that nothing’s perfect can be hard to take, because the illusion that it could be is so easy to accept. And that can add quite a lot of tension and suspense to a crime novel. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples than I could. Here are a few to get started…

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Linnet Ridgeway seems to have it all. She’s beautiful, wealthy and intelligent. And she’s accustomed to getting what she wants. She’s not deliberately spiteful or destructive, but she is used to arranging her life in exactly the way she decides. As the novel begins, for instance, she’s working on creating the perfect home at Wode Hall, which she’s recently purchased and is having renovated. She’s even trying to tear down a group of local cottages and relocate the people who live in them so that she can have the perfect view. When she meets Simon Doyle, who is engaged to marry her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, she finds herself attracted to him and before long, he too is part of the perfect world she’s trying to create. She and Simon marry and take a cruise of the Nile as part of their honeymoon trip. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet finds out tragically that the world won’t always work her way when she’s shot. The most likely suspect is Jackie, who is also on the cruise. But it’s soon proven that she could not possibly be the murderer. So Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, who are also aboard, have to search elsewhere for the killer. Interestingly, Poirot tries to warn Linnet that the world cannot be ‘made to order,’ but Linnet doesn’t listen…

The search for the perfect place to live motivates Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their children to move to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. The move seems successful and the family slowly settles in. At first, Stepford seems like an idyllic place to live: good schools, low taxes, friendly people and so on. But Joanna’s friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something dangerous may be going on in Stepford. At first Joanna doesn’t agree, and having just moved there, she’s not overly eager to sell their new house and move again. But after a time, she starts to believe that Bobbie may be right. The closer she gets to the truth, the more she sees that there is no such thing as the perfect place to live. Even beautiful small towns can have their dark secrets.

Glenn Hadlock thinks he’s found the perfect job in Robert Colby’s novella No Experience Necessary. He answers an employment advertisement for a bodyguard/escort position and finds that his prospective employer is wealthy Victor Scofield, who is disabled and in need of a chauffeur/escort for his wife Eileen. The pay and benefits are excellent, and Hadlock accepts right away when the job is offered to him. At first it seems like an ideal situation for him. Scofield is not exactly a pleasant person, but he is fair and generous, and Hadlock gets a nice place to live, a good wardrobe and plenty of spending money. He also gets to spend time with Eileen Scofield, and that becomes a serious problem when he finds himself attracted to her. Scofield has told Hadlock that his relationship with Eileen must be strictly professional. As Hadlock finds that employment condition harder and hard to accept, he also finds that his perfect job arrangement…isn’t.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She works hard to create the illusion that she’s the perfect girlfriend, and then the perfect wife, to police officer Bill King. And she succeeds too, at least at first. She’s beautiful, smart, witty, and friendly. Her parties are perfectly arranged, the food is always beautifully presented and delicious, and she and Bill are the most popular hosts among their group of friends. But Bill’s sister Lora gradually begins to suspect that Alice is not the person she seems to be. First it’s a matter of little inconsistencies in what Alice says about herself. Then Lora begins to wonder just what kind of secrets Alice has. The more she learns about Alice’s life, the more she is at the same time repelled by and drawn to it. And she’s a little worried for Bill, to whom she’s always felt close. To her, Bill is too eager to believe that Alice is the perfect wife that he thinks she is. Then there’s a tragic murder, and Lora thinks Alice may be involved in it. If so, this could be dangerous for Bill. So Lora has to decide how she’ll go about finding out the truth and what she’ll do when she does find out.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Eva Wirenström-Berg, her husband Henrik and their son Axel. Eva has worked very hard to create the perfect home, complete with white picket fence, and the perfect family life. She’s arranged everything as best she can to make everything idyllic. But of course, life isn’t that way. One day Eva finds out that Henrik has been unfaithful. She knew he’d been unhappy for a while (ironically, a lot of that had to do with her own attempts to make everything perfect). But this discovery devastates her. One night she goes out to a pub, where she meets Jonas Hansson, who has his own troubles. That meeting soon leads to both of their lives spinning out of control. And (again ironically), the more they try to make things perfect, the less perfect things get.

Qiu Xiaolong addresses the issue of the ‘perfect society’ in Enigma of China. In that novel, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police is assigned to investigate what seems to be a straightforward case of suicide. Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee, had come under investigation for corruption. It’s widely believed he killed himself rather than go through the humiliation that a full investigation plus trial and imprisonment would bring. But Chen isn’t completely sure this was a suicide and in any case, his job as a detective is to investigate fully. So he and his assistant Detective Yu look more deeply into the case. It turns out that the original allegations of corruption came from an Internet ‘grass roots’ group that posted some of the evidence. The Chinese government doesn’t want such groups to post, as that would put the lie to the illusion of a harmonious society that the government wants to create. At the same time, the government used that very group’s evidence against Zhou. It’s a very delicate situation, and in the novel there are several interesting discussions of the way the Internet is now used both for dissent and for factual information, since the official government outlets support only the appearance of societal stability and harmony.

People do want to believe illusions at times, because they can be so appealing. But sometimes, the cost of creating and maintaining an illusion can be awfully high. Maybe it’s just better to acknowledge that life’s not perfect…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ira Levin, Karin Alvtegen, Megan Abbott, Qiu Xiaolong, Robert Colby

So Shed Those Dowdy Feathers and Fly a Little Bit*

New LooksAn interesting guest post at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about what happens when people who generally don’t pay much attention to their appearance are transformed by a new look. We get very, very accustomed to the way people in our lives look and dress, and when that changes, we see them in a whole new way. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing in crime fiction; let me just share a few.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion, and people got quite accustomed to her wearing ‘sensible’ shoes and clothes. Then Katherine’s employer dies, leaving her considerable fortune to her former companion. When she learns how much money she’s going to inherit, Katherine decides to do two things. One is to have some good clothes.


‘Her first action was to visit the establishment of a famous dressmaker.
A slim, elderly Frenchwoman, rather like a dreaming duchess, received her, and Katherine spoke with a certain naiveté.
‘I want, if I may, to put myself in your hands. I have been very poor all my life and know nothing about clothes, but now I have come into some money and want to look really well dressed.’’


Needless to say, the dressmaker is delighted and helps her client to choose a becoming wardrobe. Shortly afterwards, Katherine takes the famous Blue Train to Nice to stay with a distant cousin Lady Rosalie Tamplin and her family. On the way she gets mixed up in a murder case when a fellow passenger Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is strangled.

A new look proves to be more sinister in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. The family settles in and at first all goes well. Then, Joanna and her friend Bobbie Markowe begin to suspect that something frightening is going on in Stepford. There isn’t much to go on at first; it’s a quiet town with good schools and low taxes. But something is definitely not normal (if there is such a thing) about the people who live there, especially the women. After a certain amount of time, they seem to change drastically. Here’s a description of one of the women before that change:


‘She was short and heavy-bottomed, in a blue Snoopy sweatshirt and jeans and sandals. Her mouth was big, with unusually white teeth, and she had blue take-in-everything eyes and short dark tufty hair. And small hands and dirty toes.’ 


And here’s the ‘after’ description:


‘She looked the way she had on Sunday-beautiful, her hair done, her face made  up. And she was wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt.’ 


The closer Joanna gets to the truth about what’s really going on in Stepford, the more danger there is for her.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess, writer Erica Falck has returned to her home town of Fjällbacka after her parents’ deaths so she can go through their things and sort them all out. While she’s there, a former friend Alexandra ‘Alex’ Wijkner is found dead in what looks at first like a suicide. But very soon it’s proved that she was murdered. In part to deal with her grief at the loss of a friend she hadn’t really seen in twenty-five years, Erica decides to write Alex’s biography. In that way she begins to ask questions about how and why she was killed. In the meantime the police, mostly in the form of Patrik Hedström, investigate the death officially. Patrik and Erica are drawn to each other and we learn that they’ve always liked one another; it’s just that the timing was never really right for either to pursue a relationship. One night Erica invites Patrik over for a home-cooked meal. Usually, she is a very casual dresser who doesn’t take a lot of pains with her appearance. But not tonight:


‘The first dilemma had arisen…when, like her favorite literary heroine Bridget Jones, she was faced with the decision of which panties to choose. Should she wear a beautiful, lace-trimmed thong, for the slim eventuality that she and Patrik ended up in bed? Or should she put on the substantial and terribly ugly panties with the extra support for tummy and backside, which would increase her chances that they might end up in bed at all? A hard choice, but…she decided after much deliberation on the support variety. Over them she would wear pantyhose with a tummy-flattening panel. In other words, the heavy artillery…

After another look at the pile on the bed, she pulled out from the bottom the first outfit she had tried on. Black was slimming, and the classic, knee-length dress in a Jackie Kennedy style was flattering to the figure. A pair of pearl earrings and a wristwatch would be her only jewelry, and she let her hair fall loosely over her shoulders.


Erica’s change in appearance makes quite an impression on Patrik and I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that the two of them begin a relationship.

Kerry Greenwood’s accountant-turned-baker Corinna Chapman isn’t usually one to take a lot of pains with her appearance either. But in Earthly Delights, she makes an exception. In one of the plot threads, there’ve been several deaths of heroin junkies in the area of Melbourne where Chapman has her bakery. In fact, there’s a near-death practically on her doorstep. Together with her lover Daniel Cohen, Chapman looks into what’s been happening. The clues lead to a Goth club called Blood Lines, and Chapman and Cohen decide to attend. They’ll need to be dressed appropriately though or they won’t be admitted, so Chapman turns to her friend Pat, who goes by the professional name of Mistress Dread. Normally, Chapman doesn’t go to a lot of effort in dressing. For her, it’s usually trackies and sweatshirt for baking, and a blouse and trousers for dealing with the bakery’s customers. Here’s how she transforms herself for the visit to Blood Lines:


‘She [Mistress Dread] flung it over my head with a practised hand and it settled on me…The dress was a full-skirted number with built-in black petticoats, slashed sleeves and a neckline which could be mistaken for a waist it was so deep. It was a gorgeous shade between venous and arterial blood and as I moved I rustled in the most entrancing fashion. Then she slipped a black leather corset over the dress and began lacing it at the front…’


With a few final touches, Chapman’s transformation is complete and she feels gorgeous with her new look. She also finds that it gets her and Cohen easily admitted into Blood Lines, where they find out the truth about the heroin deaths.

Willam Ryan’s Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka usually doesn’t worry too much about the way she looks. She wears her police uniform when on duty, and when off duty she wears utilitarian clothes. But as The Twelfth Department begins, she needs to change her look. She and her boss Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev are on the trail of a criminal and have tracked him to a park. In order not to reveal that she’s a cop, Slivka dresses up a bit:


‘Slivka was…wearing a pretty white dress, her short blond hair looking almost golden in the dappled sunshine. Her lips might be a little thin and her expression grave, but she was a good-looking woman and he [Korolev] watched men’s heads turn one after the other to follow her procession through the park. He wondered if they’d be so keen if they knew the hand resting nonchalantly inside her open purse was wrapped around the butt of a service-issue revolver.’


The new look works perfectly too as their target is taken completely by surprise. 

Of course sometimes, a transformation can work the other way too. Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Cherry Hayes usually wears rather flamboyant clothes, especially considering that she’s – erm – no longer twenty. But she goes for a different look in Hickory Smoked Homicide. Cherry’s friend Lulu Taylor is investigating the murder of Tristan Pembroke. One of the suspects is Lulu’s own daughter-in-law Sara. Lulu’s sure Sara isn’t guilty so she determines to clear her name. That’s where Cherry comes in. Lulu’s fairly certain that the owner of her ‘regular’ dress shop may know more than she’s saying about the murder. So she and Cherry visit the shop under the guise of finding a new look for Cherry. Here’s what Cherry uses as a ‘cover story.’


‘I’m done with shopping at the Hipster Honey, with all their trashy clothing. With my newfound need to spend my spare time in church, I really need a whole new wardrobe – of floral dresses. Just like Lulu.’


This is especially funny because usually, Cherry makes fun of Lulu’s wardrobe.

It is interesting what a big difference a change in appearance can make. Thanks to Colm Redmond for the inspiration. And now, may I suggest you pay a visit to Clothes in Books? It’s the place to shop for interesting discussions about fashion and culture in books of all kinds.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl, made popular by the Seekers.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Riley Adams, William Ryan